“I know I’m rambling but I’ve got so much to say,” the Boston Bruins defenceman said Tuesday.
Ference made sure to record what he saw and felt during the July 1-8 trip to Tanzania, writing a seven-day diary on the Bruins’ official website. There’s also a documentary in the making that will air on the NHL Network.
Florida Panthers defenceman Steve Montador was also on the trip, both players among the 300 or so athlete ambassadors for Right To Play, an international charitable organization that uses sport to improve the lives of children and communities affected by war, poverty and disease.
Both players returned from Africa changed men forever. They visited orphanages and schools in some of Tanzania’s poorest areas where Right To Play has set up programs to try and help the poorest of the poor, many of them infected with HIV or AIDS and most of them without any parents.
“I didn’t have my bag for the first three days,” Montador said Tuesday. “But not having a change of underwear or socks for three days, big deal. I never even thought about it when I was hanging out with those kids and realized they were wearing the same ripped shirt for the past week.
“And some didn’t have any shoes. It absolutely put things in perspective.”
Ference, who is also active in the fight against global warming, says he doesn’t feel guilty for the life he’s been able to lead as an NHL player, but the trip to Africa has taught him he’s got absolutely nothing to ever complain about.
“I might puke if I hear somebody complain about their salary or their contract or something like that in the locker-room next season,” said Ference, 28. “It just changes your perspective on being grateful for what you have.”
Both players say they were buoyed by the hope these kids retained despite their situation.
“Just seeing the children with no shoes, with no parents, who don’t understand yet that they’re sick with a potentially terminal disease – to see them as hopeful as they were … the fact that there’s a lot of hope going on there is something I’ll always remember and ultimately will motivate me to continue to want to be a part of Right To Play,” said Montador, 27.
Ference says that hope was on display from the very first day when they visited an orphanage in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s biggest city.
“The boys there came out, they sang songs for us, they greeted us warmly, they spoke good English to us,” said Ference. “All of sudden you have these street kids, that have no parents, they’re basically orphans trying to survive day to day, and yet they’ve put in the effort to learn English to try and get ahead in the world. These were bright, polite kids.
“They held our hands and took us through the streets to show us their neighbourhood. … Not once did they complain.”
Ference’s voice rises with enthusiasm as he describes his last day on the trip when he and Montador played in a soccer game with local children, with hundreds of other children cheering them on.
“I took the final penalty shot to win the game,” said Ference. “And these kids were running down the field and going nuts, doing backflips and celebrating, screaming and dancing. It’s going to be the highlight of the documentary, I swear.”
And yet, Ference’s voice began to trail, he remembers a volunteer telling him a startling statistic.
“We were told that 65 per cent of these kids either had HIV/AIDS or had parents that died from it,” said Ference. “So it’s so hard to describe. One moment you’re hugging these kids and dancing with them and laughing with them, and then you realize, ‘God, how many of these kids have a death sentence on them?’
“It makes you so sad and so angry at the same time.”
Ference and Montador are among the 10 Right To Play athlete ambassadors from the NHL, joining Wayne Gretzky, Alex Ovechkin, Daniel Alfredsson, Joe Thornton, Alex Steen, Matt Pettinger, Robyn Regehr and Georges Laraque.
Ference found out about Right To Play while playing in Europe during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and seeing a documentary on the organization on BBC. He also worked out with amateur athletes in Canmore, Alta., that were already members of Right To Play.
“I felt like I couldn’t just sit back and know all the stuff they were doing and not get involved somehow,” said Ference. “Because it really made sense to me. So after the lockout I got back and gave them a call. I sent them an e-mail, and said, ‘Where do I sign up?”‘